Pesky UConn Guards Hold Key to National Title Showdown vs. Kentucky

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Pesky UConn Guards Hold Key to National Title Showdown vs. Kentucky
Jason DeCrow/AP Images

ARLINGTON, Texas — As Connecticut's Ryan Boatright was spitting pleasantries about the Harrison twins from Kentucky on Sunday afternoon, he slipped.

These players, especially the veterans, are well-versed in avoiding bulletin-board material, but every once in a while, their excitement leads to the truth. So as Boatright was sticking to the company line, stating he didn't want to reveal his secrets for racking up steals, he did reveal why he's licking his chops to guard the big twins from Kentucky.

"They're big, so their dribble is a little high," he said.

David J. Phillip

It was one small detail. But that is the weakness Boatright has identified of his next prey. And give Boatright and Shabazz Napier any kind of edge in this NCAA tournament, and they'll steal your cookies before you have your glass of milk poured.

While we have mostly been distracted trying to parallel Napier's run to Kemba Walker's in 2011, the real key to UConn's tourney run has been the ability of Kevin Ollie to use his pieces to draw up great game plans.

Advantages have been negated. Mismatches exploited. And Ollie's team, not just Napier and Boatright, has executed beautifully.

Because of their seeding, many have misinterpreted the discrepancy between the Huskies and their opponents in terms of talent. If I were the captain of a pickup game with UConn and Florida's players on Saturday night, for instance, three of my first five picks would have been Napier, Boatright and DeAndre Daniels.

John Calipari has stacked his deck with talent at Kentucky, however, so this is one game where UConn cannot match the opponent for number of future pros. Those UK blue-chippers have overwhelmed every opponent at some point along the way in each of the last four classics they have won.

Only it's not just Kentucky's talent that is overwhelming; it's the team's size, too. It starts in the backcourt with Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, both of whom are 6'6" and at least 215 pounds. Andrew, especially, has been able to bully his way to the rim throughout March Madness.

Andrew's success rate against Wisconsin was not great—he made only four of 14 shots—but two of his misses in the paint led to putbacks. Those misses might as well have been assists. When he's attacking the paint, the 'Cats are really good. When he settled for jumpers against Wisconsin, he went just 1-of-7.

The question that Ollie is probably posing to his team and Calipari is hoping Andrew can overcome is this: What if the Huskies were to take those drives away? What would that do to Kentucky's offense?

That will be the key to Ollie's game plan—"We want to limit the penetration and make them shoot over the top," the coach said Sunday—and he has the little pests to execute it.

For proof, let's go back to Saturday night and take a look at Scottie Wilbekin's line: four points on 2-of-9 shooting, one assist and three turnovers.

That's the worst game Wilbekin has played all year. It was his lowest offensive rating (42) from the last two seasons, according to KenPom.com (subscription required). And it was the worst offensive game the Gators have had this season when at full strength.

Tony Gutierrez

Almost all of Florida's problems began with Wilbekin's inability to make anything positive happen for himself or his teammates.

Twice in the final seven minutes, Wilbekin tried to dance around Napier, and twice he watched Napier steal the ball.

"To just dribble in front of them, it's pretty much impossible," said UConn walk-on Tor Watts, who is defended every day by Boatright and Napier in practice. "They're going to take it every time."

In the Elite Eight, Michigan State's Keith Appling didn't even try to test the UConn guards, attempting only three shots. He also had four turnovers.

In the Sweet 16, Iowa State's DeAndre Kane took a different approach but with similar frustration. Kane got his points (16), but he needed 18 shots to get there.

"A lot of the point guards we've been playing are scoring point guards, so anytime you can get up in them and cut down their scoring, they're going to get naturally irritated," Boatright said. "Making them uncomfortable, they get erratic and they get frustrated and they make mistakes."

This is a story that's played out before for Andrew. Ten times this season he's had four or more turnovers. Three of those games Kentucky lost.

"It's going to be tough going against those two guys," Andrew said, "probably some of the quickest guards we've gone up against all year."

Pool/Getty Images

No. Not probably. They are the quickest. And it's not just quickness that makes it miserable to play against these guys. It is the effort that they, especially Boatright, put in to making the simple act of dribbling a tall task.

"If you're a ball-handler, you don't want someone just constantly up in you the entire game," Boatright said. "Making him uncomfortable, making him go side to side as he brings the ball up, he's going to want to come up and have his rhythm and have his flow. If you can get him off of that, that's going to take him out of his game, and he's the point guard, so that offense isn't going to run as smoothly."

Napier made it seem like the Harrison twins were talented enough to handle that pressure. And it does help to have a big body to help protect the ball, but what he had to say sure sounded like the first tactical move he'd make in this showdown.

"I think the Harrison twins are as quick as us too," Napier said. "They're quick and strong. I don't think our quickness is going to beat them. I believe when you're young, you've got young feet. You can move."

As quick as us too?

C'mon, Shabazz. I'm not buying. You're roping them in. 

But eventually, just like with Boatright, the truth could be found.

"DeAndre Kane is another big guard," I told Napier. "How is he similar?"

"The Harrison twins, they're young," he said. "With DeAndre Kane, he's a grown man. He knows basketball. He's experienced a lot. It was much tougher to play against him because he knows what to do, when to do it. He's been through many wars before, and he almost had a triple-double against us, so that just tells you what type of player he is."

In other words, the Harrison twins are no DeAndre Kane.

And if the Huskies are celebrating late Monday night, there will be two very frustrated twins on the other end.

But hey, they will have learned one valuable lesson: Keep your dribble low.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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